Neighborhood Council Congress: Celebrating the Status Quo (Excuse the Yawn)

GELFAND’S WORLD--I took a swipe at the annual Neighborhood Council Congress in a previous column and got some positive feedback. In brief, I suggested that the yearly meeting spend less time on goody-goody subjects.

Many aren't handled very well anyway -- when did anybody from DONE (the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment) ever do an adequate job of teaching people how to run a meeting? Instead I suggested, we take up the controversial subjects that have bedeviled us since the system first began: What would it mean to give neighborhood councils real power? How can we change the broken City Council system? 

This past weekend, we had the opening meeting of the committee that oversees this year's (September 22) NC Congress. The participants were mostly people who have served previously, some of them going back to the year 2011 when the neighborhood councils took over the planning. I should point out that this transition happened because DONE said that it did not have the money to run a meeting, and that they were therefore going to cancel it. Members of the Los Angeles Neighborhood Council Coalition offered to do the organizational work as volunteers. Eventually, DONE set up a system where the neighborhood councils have a chance to approve funding for the congress from out of their own budgets. 

Unsubstantive Issues 

The Congress has a few ritualized elements that don't accomplish a lot but don't do a lot of harm. There are introductory speeches and a final group meeting, both of which often include the city's top elected officials. There are also meals and a lot of vendor tables, many of which are informative. 

I should point out that the congress doesn't seem to work as a way of challenging elected officials over the big questions like the trash hauling monopoly or the campaign finance system. It's been my experience that a large fraction of the most vocal people are there to grind their own axes on specific local problems like whether a particular intersection will get a stop sign. 

The Meatier Issues 

And then there is the non-ritualized, substantive part of the congress. This is composed of the dozens of breakout sessions scattered around the building for most of the day. 

Apparently the choice of what topics to consider in these breakout sessions was quite contentious last year. This year's group of returning volunteers is surprisingly closed mouthed about why this was so. At this weekend's meeting, several committee members spoke strongly about the need to work as a team and remain cordial during discussions about the breakout sessions. That's a pretty strong clue that there was a real battle last year. 

I found it curious, because it's hard to guess what would be considered so toxic in a process that basically tossed up working sessions on how to run a meeting and how to use social networking using a smart phone. In the past, we've had sessions on converting your backyard to native foliage and how to understand how planning commissions work. None of these is exactly a call to the barricades. 

Objecting to the congress becoming a theme park 

There was one topic I chose to contest at the outset. For the past several years, the planning group has come up with a slogan for the congress as a whole -- what they call the "theme."  Some of the people at Saturday's meeting argued that the themes were intended to steer the entire set of discussions and sessions for the year's congress. Let's take a look at some of those themes: 

2013 "Bridging the Gap -- Bringing Government Closer to the People" 

2014 "Keys to Success" 

2015  "Building For the Future . . . It Starts With Us" 

2016  "Neighborhoods First: Your Voice, Our City" 

2017 "Celebrating our Diversity" 

It's not that I find these "themes" particularly bothersome. I would guess that only dyed in the wool Trumpians would have found the 2017 theme on diversity off-putting. 

But the themes suffer from two deficiencies. The first is that they are superficial, trite, and platitudinous, rather like the vice principal's remarks at a junior high school graduation. The second deficiency is the corollary of the first. There is nothing in any of these themes suggesting that an important function of an annual congress is to consider approaches to the city's structural problems or even to consider the weaknesses in the neighborhood council system and how they might be addressed. 

I'm not referring to talks about doing better outreach or how to avoid violating state laws. Those are exercises at getting individuals to conform more closely to the junior high school model of good citizenship -- the mentality that the city government would prefer to see us embody. 

Why object to having a theme? 

The problem with assigning a goody-goody theme to the next congress is that we ought to be talking about serious structural problems and how to fix them. (Hint: we don't fix them by having the Board of Neighborhood Commissioners create another training requirement or a new set of rules regarding our deportment.) 

If we aren't willing to set aside at least one meeting room for these serious discussions, then we might as well adopt as our theme the phrase that I whimsically wrote after hearing too much discussion last Saturday: 

"2018 Neighborhood Congress: Celebrating the Status Quo" 

Put it this way: 

Weren't neighborhood councils supposed to change things, and not celebrate why everything is peachy keen? 

Remember that the nc system was created at least in part as a sop to stave off valley and harbor secession. Let's finally get around to doing that job. 

Adding a more rebellious track to the schedule 

I think that the participants at Saturday's meeting were generally pretty reasonable people, and they seemed to be willing to listen to those of us who would like to see a little more breadth in the scope of the breakout topics. That having been said, here are a few sessions I would like to see: 

we need to subdivide our councils more, not less 

what would it mean to give nc's real power? 

Meeting the people who question the system, including CityWatch columnists 

What is the optimum population size for a neighborhood council? 

Stakeholder status should be limited to residents 

Remember that several of these questions have not been discussed seriously for about 18 years, and further remember that unresolved questions over stakeholder status have bogged us down since the very beginning. 

PS: Doing more with the same limited number of rooms 

We have 10 or 12 meeting rooms available to us. Right now, the draft schedule has these rooms penciled in for 75 minute sessions. That allows for each room to be used for 4 sessions over the course of the day. But by taking one room and using it for 55 minute meetings, we could hold 6 sessions in that room. 

May I politely suggest that if we were to assign one room to the more controversial topics, we could have 6 separate breakout sessions using that one room alone. Perhaps other topics of a less controversial nature would also be best fit by 55 minute sessions. 

Addendum: LA as tourist attraction as viewed from the other coast 

One of those articles attempting to explain to the rest of the country how to tour Los Angeles came up in the New York Times this week

"5 Tips for a luxury trip to Los Angeles on a budget" by Shivani Mora was at the level described by the late John Bogert of the Daily Breeze as the knowledge gained by a visiting writer from the front seat of a rental car. 

This was a typical take on the city which misses a couple of points. We have a strong scientific culture. We have a strong creative culture which is pointed at projective media such as television and movies, but which aren't terribly accessible to visitors. The author mentions a couple of destinations (K-Town) without giving specifics. Perhaps it's just as well that local hangouts such as Neptune's Net and Seal Beach were ignored. 

Scott Lemieux in the blog Lawyers Guns and Moneytakes the NYT piece apart pretty effectively. [] 

My objection is less with this ultimately superficial piece and more with our city's leaders. They have failed to do what's necessary to popularize this area's contributions to the great art form of the 20th and now the 21st centuries, the movies. We should have a well marked walking tour to historic spots in Hollywood where Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd worked. We should also consider moving or recreating the Silent Movie Theatre along the Hollywood Blvd corridor.


(Bob Gelfand writes on science, culture, and politics for CityWatch. He can be reached at [email protected])